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The force is with Sri Lanka

Islanders have an advantage in terms of match practice and familiarity with conditions, writes Kadambari Murali.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2006 12:37 IST

Perhaps unknown to himself, well-known British novelist-philosopher CP Snow was a clairvoyant. Known for more serious social analyses, his first novel was panned by most as a relatively forgettable whodunit. But Death Under Sail, written almost 75 years ago, when the detective novel was more than just gory crime gone hi-tech and important matters like cricket were very much part of the social set-up, had an interesting insight.

"Since cricket became brighter, a man of taste can only go to an empty ground, and regret the past. Or else, watch a second-class county match and regret the future…,' wrote Lord Snow. '…So, particularly now that buffoons turn it into an inferior substitute for musical comedy, I prefer to sit on empty grounds.”

Even more remarkably, this was written when One-day cricket was a blip, a pleasantly barbaric pastime indulged in by the genteel when Test cricket was unhappily interrupted. If Lord Snow had had an inkling of what would happen in the future, he would probably have been more sarcastic. Cricket, unfortunately, seems to have moved away from the field and onto the stage.

For instance, as we enter the midway stage of the Champions Trophy main round, the standout feature has been the off the field dramatics. If the last edition of the Trophy in England was defined by the absence of crowds and spirit, this hasn't been markedly different. We've had vicious verbal wars off the field, a couple of stunning revelations and only some one-sided battles on it.

Only a couple of games have been really interesting, the West Indies-Australia one that went down to the wire and the Pakistan-Sri Lanka game that was a delightful tribute to team spirit in the face of adversity. But everyone is hoping that Tuesday's Sri Lanka-South Africa game will go some way towards restoring parity and bring life to this event where it matters --- in the actual cricket itself.

There is little to choose between the teams, a quick glance at the records will show that the two are remarkably neck-and-neck in the head-to-head stakes. South African skipper Graeme Smith put it down to how strong both are on home ground. “But in neutral territory,” he admitted, “things could be different.”

Smith gave Sri Lanka the slight advantage, saying that they were more used to sub-continental conditions but what could probably be more to Lanka's advantage is the fact that they have been playing a lot more cricket than South Africa. Smith said as much when he said their opener against New Zealand was like a season opener. “It's difficult to get the momentum going when you haven't played much cricket and there are gaps between games,” he said. Having said that, he knows that South Africa's not having played as much will just have to be consigned to the stack of 'one of those unfortunate things' in what is a critical game. Lanka would be playing their final league game, having beaten New Zealand and lost to Pakistan, while South Africa's loss to New Zealand in the lone game they have played means the group is intriguingly open. Both teams know that could all change on Tuesday though.

Still, South Africa are not the second-ranked country in world cricket for no reason and to have got there, as Smith said, they have had to beat quality teams at home and abroad. There is a certain spirit within this South African team, a mating of bonhomie and ruthless derring-do that comes through loud and clear. It is in contrast to the Lankans, who play with a happy spirit that is no less in intensity but is far more fun to watch than cutting edge professionalism and often, quite as effective. And under the youthful leadership of Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka seem to have reinvented themselves as a team that has a bit of everything and a place for everyone.

The most vital thing for the Africans, as they see it, would be how they adapt to the conditions. It would be interesting to see how they cope with the middle overs, where Lanka's slow bowlers, Muralitharan, Jayasuriya and Dilshan, would try and choke the life out of them. It would be as interesting to see how the Lankan openers, perennially primed for a flyaway start, deal with Pollock and Ntini, among the most experienced pairs in world cricket. If it goes according to form and the circumstances both teams are in, we have a no-holds-barred, aggressive day of cricket up ahead.

First Published: Oct 23, 2006 20:58 IST